Fresh off high-profile appearances on “Oprah” and at the World Series and U2’s Berlin reunification concert, Jay-Z continued his studious evolution into a Sinatra-like cultural institution at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion Sunday night, part of a midsized-arena tour preceding a jaunt through larger venues in early 2010. One year into his massive $150 million deal with Live Nation, the Brooklyn rapper is clearly positioning himself to be a late-career touring juggernaut; if he can keep the pace he set during the incendiary opening half of Sunday’s show throughout an entire performance, it’s not unreasonable to imagine him succeeding.
Opening with last summer’s single “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” — a curious tune that marries an instantly timeless musical arrangement to insular lyrics about New York City radio personalities and fashion trends — Jay led his crack 10-piece band (along with hype-man Memphis Bleek and singer Bridget Kelly) through a blistering first 45 minutes of his 95-minute set, revealing a back catalog whose depth is unprecedented in mainstream hip-hop.
The rapper has been steadily honing his onstage instincts during his last few tours, and it showed early on. The bombast of “U Don’t Know” and “Public Service Announcement” have been perfectly calibrated to send arena crowds over the edge — with “99 Problems” the closest thing to a mosh pit-instigator that a straight hip-hop show is likely to see. There were tongue-twisting thug-life narratives (“Jigga What, Jigga Who”) positioned after slinky, feminine club bangers (“I Just Wanna Love U (Give It to Me)”), as well as surprise performer Rihanna, who dramatically emerged from a trapdoor to sing her parts on “Run This Town” and debut a new single.
Perhaps the most welcome new element in Jay-Z’s development as a live performer is his willingness to allow his songs time to breathe, even it this meant some shocking setlist omissions (nothing from the highly regarded “Reasonable Doubt”).
The show’s energy deflated around the halfway mark, however, as Jay plowed through six straight cuts from wildly uneven September release “The Blueprint 3.” One wonders if the rapper’s future output will begin to serve the same purpose as the Rolling Stones’ post-’70s releases — tour vehicles to be dutifully promoted and then forgotten as soon as the next one rolls around.